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Straight talk with the CEO to get better sustainability results

The SSC Team December 3, 2015 Tags: , , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

Sustainability decisions and reports are data-heavy. And not only that, sustainability data may be unfamiliar to many, including your own CEO.

One of the worst things a sustainability executive or sustainability consultant can do is jargon-speak and data-overload when presenting to corporate leadership.

“Too many executives overestimate the CEO’s understanding of, and desire for, detailed functional data. Many of the best CEOs are generalists who lack deep expertise in most functional areas,” writes Joel Trammell for Entrepreneur.

Remember that the CEO, and in many cases other executives, are relying on you – either as an consultant or as the in-house expert – to analyze the functional data and deliver your expert opinion on that data.

Here are Trammell’s three tips for turning down the data noise and turning up the sustainability signal to get better results:

  1. Keep the big picture in mind. Deliver “concise insight” into how a sustainability program is tracking on goals and how those goals are supporting the company’s overarching goals. Drop the details, and focus on impact.
  2. Focus on the future. When talking about a new sustainability program or report, focus on how the results of the report are going to affect the company’s future performance. Asking for an expensive LCA? Don’t dwell on the cost of the actual LCA assessment, instead frame the ask around how the LCA will “identify risk.” And, by identifying risk the LCA will give guidance on mitigating it, and the result will be long-term, low-risk operations in a more sustainable marketplace. Win!
  3. Ask for support when you need it. “Only the CEO can mitigate conflicts between departments and allocate resources where they are most needed,” said Trammell. This is especially important for sustainability executives, as we are trusted with advising and changing how other departments operate. Not everyone likes change. If you are feeling push back from purchasing on the new sustainable purchasing processes, directly provide guidance on how the CEO can proactively remove barriers in purchasing so he or she can see the positive results you promised from the program (Note: Don’t tattle. Keep it professional with clear action steps from the CEO).

By focusing on the big picture, the future, and framing how your role is working with and for other departments, you can keep your communication with the CEO focused and relevant.

Are you looking to pitch to company executives, but need to translate sustainability performance in a language that the C-suite understands? Let us know!  

Put your office paper use policy down, on paper

The SSC Team November 19, 2015 Tags: , , , , , , , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

Paper is arguably one of the most important physical invention in human history. (People keep claiming “printing press,” but seriously. That’s like“car” without “wheel.”)

For all its importance, paper is capable of doing some major damage to wetlands, oceans, and forests.

According to New Leaf Paper’s recently released Life Cycle Analysis, recycled paper has a climate impact 100 times lower than virgin paper.

Recycled paper uses 75 percent less water, has no impacts on rivers or wetlands from recurring logging of large forests, and avoids the harvesting of multiple forest types.

The obvious solutions

Solve incrementally, not drastically

Making the decision to cut 40% of an organization’s paper use or increase budgets for paper by 40% probably won’t work. Instead, make it a change management effort.

Employees, department heads, and company management all need to understand the effort, be given clear direction, milestones, and goals, and feel that they are making a difference.

Here’s a sample of how you can manage the transition to using less paper: 

  • Ensure employees fully understand why you’re focusing on paper (Save the forests! Save the ocean!)
  • Ensure employees understand how much paper they’ve used in the last measurable period (A mini-paper audit, perhaps?)
  • Give department managers a monthly “paper budget” and not an all-access pass to the copy room (It’s easier to “run out of paper” at the end of each 30 days, and “get by,” than it is to conceptualize what a year’s supply of paper means. Learning to ration over time is more successful.).
  • Give each department a paper reduction goal
  • Reward and support employee efforts to reduce printing and keep costs down (money saved through paper reduction can be donated to a conservation organization).

The case for reducing paper consumption and changing the purchasing behavior is similar to all change management projects. Communicate, collect data, create an action plan with goals, and measure your success.

For help developing sustainability strategies for your organization, contact us! 

Grow Your Sustainability Consultancy Business by Speaking Your Client’s Language

The SSC Team July 7, 2015 Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments
Enjoy this blog from the SSC archives: So, you know all about your prospective client and you’ve decided on the strongest business case for sustainability for their situation. Now it’s time to win them over and solidify the relationship with a smashing proposal or pitch.

1) Don’t think of a pitch as a sell, think of it as an educational opportunity

Don’t worry so much about whether or not the client is going to hire you at the time you are meeting with them. Instead, treat it like a customized webinar or mini-conference where you are showcasing your knowledge about sustainability, the realities of where the economy is heading, their specific opportunities in relation to sustainability, and what they will need to do to get ahead and effectively adopt sustainability in their corporate strategic framework. You are just showing them the raw ingredients, while keeping a hold of the recipe. 

2) Start at the very beginning, a very good place to start

So, you know all about sustainability. And you know all about your prospective client. Unfortunately, your audience, be it the CEO or a mid-level executive, may not know much more about sustainability than “I think it costs a lot, but everybody seems to be doing it.” Clear that up right away with a brief definition of strategic sustainability – use the definition you use for your own consultancy. Make sure the client know that sustainability is a business framework, not a philanthropic or public relations gesture. Drop a few names, too – Wal-Mart, GE, Nike, Rio Tinto, Toyota. It doesn’t hurt for your client to know that they are joining the ranks of commerce’s elite.

3) Stress the long term and a future of change

“Fundamentally, corporate sustainability is about exploring the next way your company will be successful, because almost all the things you currently rely on -- energy, supply chain, consumers, investors, regulation -- are going to change,” said David Bent from the non-profit sustainability organization Forum for the Future in a blog series for Greenbiz.com. Changing times demand that companies factor in future risks, such as rising energy prices, increased regulation, and pressure from consumers, into their strategic plans. Since many of these future risks and market changes are going to stem from environmental and social concerns, integrating sustainability principles into the corporate framework now, to address these issues now, isn’t just a “cost” to the business, it’s an investment in the future risk management. “You can’t predict ‘the’ future, but you had better be prepared for possible futures with a portfolio of strategies – and a business case – that ‘future-proof the company’ by diversifying your risk going forward,” advises Gil Friend, founder and CEO of Natural Logic. You must stress this fact to prospective clients – they will probably have to become sustainable eventually, but they might as well make some money doing it proactively instead of reactively. Just be sure to avoid scare tactics or pressure. The fact is: the world is changing, and change can be good.

4) Look to frame sustainability as a driver for innovation and opportunity

Find examples of “play-to-win” organizations that have used sustainability to tap into new opportunities (destroying the competition in the process) to help sell the concept. Companies are inherently competitive, but often are mired in a “compliance mentality.” Remind your audience that business is a battlefield; you might be able to tap into that competitive spirit. Use what you know about the company’s competitors or industry to highlight how the sustainability program may get them ahead of the game.

5) Present the client’s customized business case in a language that everyone can understand – shareholder value

It’s meat and potatoes time. You’ve briefly discussed sustainability, the risk of not acting, and the opportunity gained by taking action. Next is what they’ve all been waiting for – the business case. At this point, be fairly specific about what you feel the key “value drivers” of a sustainability program will be for this specific organization. First, present the business case. For example, an engineering firm with a zillion vacancies on its “careers” page and a reputation of an ‘old boys club’ may benefit from a sustainability program stressing competitive advantage – a program that will help its recruitment program, shape its industry, and help it become an early mover on new and emerging areas for growth (like green design, perhaps). Second, present the projected investment (in time and money) and the estimated return on investment (ROI). According to Friend, the business case has to provide a clear ROI in the financial, operational, and strategic dimensions. But be clear that ROI in sustainability isn’t only about short-term dollars and cents. When you are talking about elements like “recruitment” and “industry shaping,” be sure to clarify that these, albeit not short-term financial returns, are “indirect” returns. While direct returns include costs (lighting retrofits or waste-reduction), indirect returns ( impacts on brand reputational value, employee productivity and retention, product quality, community goodwill, etc.) can open companies to new business as much as any marketing plan while helping reduce risk. For an in-depth discussion on costing for sustainability, check out the book Making Sustainability Work by Marc Epstein. Third, use statistics, examples, graphics, and best practices, briefly but effectively, to back up your claims on how your proposed programs can directly affect shareholder value through direct and indirect returns. Finally, give the client a path on how a sustainability program for this value driver might be incorporated into their organizational framework.

6) Don’t frighten them off

Although you may have made an amazing pitch with ROI analysis that just can’t be denied, a client may still balk. “But we don’t have $150,000 for a lighting retrofit, even if we know it will save us $300,000 over the next six years…” Yes, it may be ideal if you could tackle each value driver head on, re-write the strategic plan, and reorganize the company, but, more likely, the financial minds at your prospect’s firm are going to be reluctant to loosen the purse strings. To help ease them into the process (and help you begin to form a long, trusting relationship), break it down into steps. Begin with saying, “Now that I’ve presented the strategic sustainability framework that will eventually deliver the most value to your organization, let’s talk about where we begin. Every journey starts with a series of small steps…” At this point, have one or two programs that will work as small but effective pilot programs for this broader sustainability plan. Try to find the one or two manageable programs with the lowest-hanging, least expensive fruit, and suggest that the client give them a try first. The pilots will help you build credibility with the CFO’s office, as well as awareness throughout the rest of the organization. Hopefully by achieving documented success with the first few pilot programs, the company will continue to draw on your services to expand into the more complex strategic development of their sustainability program (that you were the architect of).

7) Be straightforward about the business relationship

Once you’ve delivered the presentation (no more than an hour of their time) and have some concrete offerings available for them (green audits, waste audits, pilot ‘Green Team’ programs, stakeholder engagement initiatives, or whatever your other pilot programs were) be ready for questions. Know how long each program will take and what it may cost if they suddenly want to go whole hog. Be prepared to answer detailed questions about customer service, your ‘next steps’ in project development, your experience, your resources, costs of your service, as well as costs directly to them (retrofits, training investments, life-cycle-analyses, etc.) and the overall estimated ROI for each suggested program. Instead of spending your time trying to convince the client through testimonials of how great you are, just do what you do best: consult them. Show them what you know and use examples from research or from your past experience to illustrate how they, too, can meet their goals, transform their business, reduce their risk, and increase shareholder value through sustainability. You are simply the person with the tools to help them get the process started. Find out how you can become a better sustainability leader in one of our latest blogs.

Moving Beyond Cultural Competency to Equity Literacy

The SSC Team May 14, 2015 Tags: , , , , , , , , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments
By: Alexandra Kueller Take a look at the people that make up your workplace. How diverse is the group? Are they inclusive people? How do they react when someone displays a certain bias? All of these aspects are important to any workplace, because not only can these signs be indicative of a business’s reputation, but it can also monitor the success of how well everyone within the organization works together. To help bring all of this to light, the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities and Opportunity Lynchburg hosted a workshop to show examples of how to move beyond basic cultural competency in the workplace. By the end of the session, everyone walked out of the room equipped to help take their organization to the next level of equity literacy. It’s first important to note the difference in what separates cultural competence from equity literacy:
  • Cultural Competence – you are able to get along, understand, and interact with those from other cultures and socio-economic backgrounds; your actions are rooted within your best interest
  • Cultural Proficiency – you move beyond yourself and you have a deeper knowledge and grasp of those different cultures and backgrounds that surround you; your actions are not as self-serving
  • Equity Literacy – you dig below the surface to understand where the cultural differences stem from and take action to fix injustices; your actions indicate that you want to better the problem, because that is the right thing to do and not just for yourself
So how does one go from cultural competence to cultural proficiency to equity literacy in the workplace? Here are a few steps to help get you started in the right direction:
  1. Recognize biases and inequities as they come up; start to look for the ones that are subtle
  2. Respond to the biases and inequities when they are said; don't be afraid to point them out
  3. Redress the biases and inequities in the long term; acknowledge there is a problem and don't sweep it under the rug
  4. Create and Sustain a bias-free and equitable learning environment
Remember, this process takes time, and no one is going to achieve equity literacy overnight (as much as we would like to think that’s true…). Rather it’s a stepping stone to get you to the ultimate goal of equity literacy. Last fall SSC attended a workshop that focused on the business case for diversity. Read about it here.

Choosing Sustainability Management Software for Your Business

The SSC Team April 23, 2015 Tags: , , , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

This article was written as an expansion of our white paper “Choosing Sustainability Management Software for your Business” published in July 2011.  If you’re looking for information on how to make your software selection, check out the full article.  If you just want to make sense of this particular topic, keep reading. Enjoy:

Now that you’ve decided to purchase sustainability software, an important related decision is whether or not you want to do the implementation work in-house or if you want to bring on a consultant to help out.  Making the right decision will be critical to your overall project success as well as impact the total cost of ownership for your solution.  And depending on your specific situation, either answer can be the right answer.  This article covers four key considerations:  Culture, Cost, Capabilities and Confidence.

Culture

Your business culture is an important first consideration.  Either you are consultant friendly or you prefer to do projects internally.  Making a decision that fits your culture and is consistent with your values will be important throughout the project.  That’s not to say that you might not go in the other direction for a specific project, or even choose a hybrid approach to delivery; just be true to yourself, as that will contribute to project morale for the entire team regardless of who signs their paycheck.  

A hybrid approach may provide the best of both cultures for you without offending the purists on either side.  Bring in specific subject matter expertise that you don’t already have in-house and then match it up with the right internal members of your Green Team to deliver the project.  On a high performing team, your consultants should be looking to train the internal employees on all the ins and outs of the system so that eventually your people can take over and run with the operational system. A good consultant instills confidence that they provide specialized expertise and trust that you will feel comfortable to call on them for further assistance in the future, instead of keeping them on the project unnecessarily for extended or prolonged periods of time.

Cost

After culture, cost is a major factor in the DIY vs. consultant decision.  For many firms – large or small – the preliminary inclination is to try and do the work internally.  The general premise is that it will be cheaper to use people that you already are paying because there is no additional cash out of pocket like there would be with an external consultant.  Consultants seemingly come with a high, upfront, fixed cost as your employee costs are already embedded in your budget.  Don’t forget to account for the “opportunity cost” of your internal employees – after all, they would be working on something else valuable for your firm if they weren’t picked for this project.

Beyond the opportunity cost consideration, looking only at the incremental expense doesn’t address an important aspect of choosing your own internal people to do the work: Do they actually have time?  Presumably, all of your existing employees have a “day job” that brings them to work every day.  Some of them are probably even doing two or three different jobs during a regular workday.  Determining if you actually have the available slack time within your existing team members is an important determination.  After all, if you’re on a deadline and your employees just can’t carve out enough time to meet that target, it may end up costing you more money to bring consultants in later than it would have if you had engaged them at the start of your project.  If you engage them in the beginning, the consultants are competing for your business; if you wait to bring them in until later in the project, they know you are hiring them to help bail you out so the leverage has shifted into their favor.

A final cost consideration when hiring a consultant (or going the “cheaper” internal route) is that “you get what you pay for.”  This can be taken as advice that the lowest cost doesn’t always provide you with the best result – nor for that matter does the highest cost.  Just make sure that the cost is right for the work being performed and for your situation.  That brings me to the second aspect of “you get what you pay for” – which is to MAKE SURE you get what you paid for.  Pay your consultant based on their delivery of the results you are looking for on the project, not just because they send you an invoice.  If possible, get a consultant to sign up for a risk-reward component to their payment so that they will be incentivized to do a better job since some of their compensation is on the line.

Capabilities

One of the primary reasons to hire a consultant is that they have the necessary skills and/or expertise to perform the software implementation that you may not already have in-house.  Beyond the skills that they bring to the table, a consultant should also bring some other benefits to make a strong business case for hiring them.  Your consultant should bring the necessary tools, techniques, and methodologies to the table that their consultancy uses and which you don’t have.  This may be as simple as them showing up with their own laptops and software licenses that you don’t need to pay for, or them having the necessary data gathering systems to pull in all the info you need for your new sustainability software platform. 

As consultants, you are also expecting them to bring prior experience to the table.  Whether or not they’ve worked on a project exactly like what you are asking them to perform, you should be able to get veteran individual consultants and/or teams of consultants to come help you out.  And by teams, we don’t mean the kind where the senior partner sells the deal and then you don’t see him again except when he stops by infrequently to check on the team of freshly minted MBA’s that he’s actually assigned to your project.  We mean the kind of team where your senior (and junior) consultants are actively engaged on a daily basis to help you get the project done quickly and effectively – i.e. on time and on budget.

In addition to experience, your consultant may be able to offer a cost advantage, especially if their firm is already doing business with you and you can get any sort of bulk discount.  The discount opportunity may extend to software and/or hardware purchases as well since they may be able to aggregate purchases across multiple clients.  This discount opportunity may also arise if you are able to hire your software vendor as the implementation consultant.  While this may raise some concerns about “the fox guarding the hen house”, it may help keep your costs down. 

Confidence

There’s an old adage in the software industry: “No one ever got fired for hiring IBM.”  While this is generally an explanation of why you should hire a bigger firm over a smaller firm, it also illustrates the importance of having confidence in your choice.  Regardless of whether you feel the need for a big firm with vast resources, or if you prefer a smaller firm that provides a more personalized experience, the most important factor for you is that you find a good consultant that you can trust.  They should have a proven track record, have a solid network of resources they can draw on (regardless of whether they are internal or external to the consulting firm), and be able to instill the necessary confidence in you that they will deliver.  If they can’t do that, then you shouldn’t hire them.  If they’re the best solution to your need however, then by all means, hire away!

Now that you’ve read this article, tell us what you think!  And be sure to check out the full white paper.

6 Reasons Your Sustainability Innovation Is Failing

The SSC Team March 24, 2015 Tags: , Strategic Sustainability Consulting No comments

In 2013, Jennifer Woofter wrote an article for Environmental Leader that highlighted some ways your sustainability innovation might be failing. We thought that the article was worth another share. Enjoy!

For the last few weeks, I’ve been participating in Leading Strategic Innovation in Organizationsa course by David A. Owens of Vanderbilt University. It’s a Coursera class, which means that it’s free and open to the public — and it’s huge (with tens of thousands of students “in attendance”). I’m fascinated by the topic of strategic innovation, and naturally want to apply the concepts to my own field of study: sustainability.

And here is the question I’m wrestling with: why is innovation not getting us closer to global sustainability? Climate change, water scarcity, and biodiversity loss—for all the brilliant advances in “green” processes, products, and services, we’re still losing the battle.

But why? Or at least, why is it taking so long?

In particular, I find Owen’s analysis of common innovation hurdles to be a great aid to my quest to understand why current innovation efforts don’t seem to be making a significant dent in our global sustainability problems.

Owen argues that hurdles to innovation can come from six different places. I’ve listed them below, along with my own comments about how they apply specifically to sustainability challenges.

Individuals Don’t Have the Mindset

Are individuals regularly challenged to think differently and challenge assumptions? This holds true for corporate employees, government drones, and stay-at-home moms. How often do any of us really stop and think about why we are doing the things that we’re doing, how they might be done differently, and our role in the larger “system”. Without an innovation mindset at the individual level, we’ll never come up with enough ideas to throw into the mix.

Example: The “average” employees. For most of us, life in the American workforce isn’t a hotbed of sustainability innovation. We get our jobs done, hope for a promotion, and struggle to maintain work/life balance. Rarely do we really wrestle with how to creatively disrupt our daily tasks with sustainable innovation.

The Group’s Culture Doesn’t Support Risk

Maybe individuals have great ideas, but the ideas are killed while still “tiny sweet things” because they are deemed too risky, too expensive, too disruptive, or just too crazy. It might be the boss crushing your dream, or simply a group culture that doesn’t encourage exploring bold new ideas.

Example: The last time your Green Team took a “great idea” to your boss, only to have it shut down because it was too expensive or time consuming. (But definitely go ahead with those cute stickers reminding people to turn off their lights!)

Your Organization Isn’t Structured to Move Ideas through to Production

Even if an innovative idea gets internal group support, the organization (company, government, household, or community) may hold it back. In a company, this is often because there is no clear path for moving an idea through the corporate hierarchy, and the brilliant innovative idea flounders in no-man’s land.

Example: You’ve got an idea to shift your manufacturing plant over to renewable energy using an awesome new program offered by your utility company. But you’re a middle manager, and no one can decide who “owns” the process—facilities, finance, production, or legal—so your idea sits in limbo until the new program’s funds expire.

The Market Doesn’t See Value in Your Innovation

The idea is solid, and the sustainability benefits are tremendous. There’s just one problem: no one wants to adopt your innovation. If you can’t get your innovation diffused through society (or your customer base), your brilliant idea won’t get the traction it needs to scale.

Example: Loud snack food packaging. Need I say more? 

Society Doesn’t Accept Your Idea as Legitimate

The common example given about “societal illegitimacy” is human cloning: a fascinating innovation, but not particularly ethical (or so say the UN and various other governing bodies). The key concept here is that innovation must be seen as palatable — if not to the masses, then at least to the target audience you seek to change.

Example: I love the Zero Waste Home. This is a family that has radically shifted their lifestyle so that they generate zero waste. EVERY aspect of their lives aligns with this principle (they don’t even have a garbage can, just a tiny recycling box for the curb!). Now, this is certainly innovative, but I think we can agree that (at least for 99.99% of society) this is not a palatable lifestyle. 

The Technology Isn’t There

Even if everything else is in alignment, we often need technology to help us achieve the innovation. The technology must be available and feasible, meaning it can’t be too complex, too expensive, or too restricted to use in practical applications.

Example: Space solar power. It is definitely innovative, but the cost of the technology prevents it from being a realistic solution to today’s reliance on fossil fuels.

In many cases, there will be a combination of innovation obstacles preventing us from moving closer to sustainability. Sadly, these aren’t simple solutions to solve. (Just try building and deploying a space solar power array.) So where does that leave us?

Three thoughts come to mind:

First, if you are an individual employee with a great sustainability idea, it can be helpful (for your mental health, if nothing else) to preemptively identify where you are likely to hit a roadblock.

Second, if you are an organization looking for great sustainability ideas that will reduce your environmental impacts and save you boatloads of money, don’t just expect employees to come up with great ideas. Make sure you create an atmosphere that embraces risk (or at least enjoys exploring bold ideas), as well as delineates a clear path to help get those bold ideas into practice.

Third, take the time to understand your stakeholder preferences. Will your customers buy in? Is it legitimate and palatable to your target audience? What assumptions are you making, and how can you test them before launching into full scale innovation production.

The intersection of innovation and sustainability is a hot topic these days, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you think is the biggest obstacle to sustainable innovation in today’s world? Leave a comment or join in the conversation on Twitter!